This is Bálint Gergely, Oberlin class of 2000 and secretary of the Alumni Association. I just attended President Carmen Twillie Ambar's reception for alumni and students in London and took a lot of photos and notes to enable you to feel the spirit and positive energy of this event. I think I speak for many of us when I say that we were left impressed but also humbled at the task ahead of Carmen, while also feeling optimistic about having a respected and engaging President!
A few key highlights from Carmen's presentation follow (I was typing away as she was speaking). I am sorry that some of these points I noted don't flow as eloquently as they were presented. There was a lot discussed and I missed quite a few points too.
Carmen was introduced by our very own fabulous alumna Tracy Chevalier '84!
Family history – Carmen spoke about her belief in Oberlin's principles from her own experience – parents went from rural Arkansas picking cotton to college and her Mom went on to a Ph.D. program. When parents did well, the family did well.
How do we respond to the world that our students are inheriting? If we are to be relevant to that world, how do we respond to the headwinds that go against the liberal arts college model?
Key demographic trends are declining. If you focus only on traditional-age college students – this is an issue. There are fewer high school students in the United States.
What is the value of a liberal arts education? Is the investment worth it? This is not unreasonable to ask. Parents today ask ROI of education. $52k tuition per year at Oberlin today. We are being asked to demonstrate our value in different ways. It's not just an Oberlin challenge – it's a higher education challenge. Higher education is being disrupted.
Unlikely competition is emerging: state schools with liberal arts schools. Competition is fierce.
How do we as Oberlin hold on to our core while being prepared for change?
Carmen spent her first six months meeting key constituents, students, faculty, staff to understand the Oberlin culture.
The strategic plan was created 1.5 years before Carmen arrived, before many of the key issues emerged.
Obies can do anything but we can't do everything – need to chose. Oberlin cannot win every battle.
Need to better connect Oberlin to life after Oberlin.
Students want to APPLY their liberal arts education.
A survey conducted amongst admitted but not matriculated students: what were the reasons that they didn't choose Oberlin? They responded that they love Oberlin but experiential elements are not ranked high: internships, research, study abroad. We do these well but not well enough articulated. How does Oberlin apply to my life after college?
62 percent of our budget is based on tuition. Past two years we haven't met enrollment goals. There is a financial impact.
The financial resiliency of Oberlin: expenditures outstrip revenues. Going on for a while but it's gotten more acute with the enrollment shortfalls. Red light blinking in the distance. Endowment: parts are restricted and it's not like a checking or savings account. Need to rethink our financial model. This is not an exercise to just cut – how do we reallocate our resources to grow?
Double futurist challenge: there is a child born this moment, how do we make sure they will want to select Oberlin in 18 years? And what education will they need? All this while holding on to our core Oberlin values. It's an opportunity for our institution. Need to do the right thing in an Oberlin way. We can again demonstrate being leaders in our field, showing how liberal arts can stay relevant.
Carmen's ask for all of us: be ambassadors of Oberlin. And be institutionalists. There will be changes that will be hard and personal for many of us but we need to keep thinking what is best for Oberlin. It is our opportunity to demonstrate our boldness. Carmen's job is to ensure that Oberlin will be here for years and years to come. People come and go but alumni are forever. Want to have Oberlin in 3030 even if the president is in a hologram at that point...
Amongst college presidents, the one big question today is: is the educational financial model sustainable?
What are the things that can only be done at Oberlin because of the College/Conservatory combination? Thinking beyond today's double degree. Students already do this on their own in a way by creating their majors but it's not currently a reason why students chose Oberlin.